Interview / Sumac
By Milton Stille
In a Vancouver-based magazine with heavy music as its focus, an entity such as Sumac really doesn’t need any introduction, so instead of that I’m going to talk about myself.
Baptists have long been a local favourite of mine, and Nick’s other projects have never failed to deliver on the performance front, either. Isis (as well as numerous acts that released material on Hydrahead) was a pretty big one for me as far as opening the doors to other musical genres goes. Also, can I add that Botch just might be my favourite band ever?
Not Your Scene: Tell us about the origins of Sumac. How did this band come together?
Nick Yacyshyn: Aaron reached out to me to start something up while he was working on an Old Man Gloom record at GodCity earlier this year. Baptists had been out there the previous October recording with Kurt [Ballou], so I guess he put in the good word for me! We had a jam and decided from there to pursue it.
Aaron Turner: I had had this idea of a band for years – the sound of Sumac was something I’d been hearing in my head at least ten years ago, and have been thinking about ever since. I’d hoped at one time that some of the other bands I was/am in could go in this direction, and for a variety of reasons it just never came to be. So, in the last few years I’d been thinking about how to make these sounds in my head possible and I realized the first order of business was to find a great drummer to play with – seemed to be the first key to bring it into being. I’d been going to shows in Seattle for a few years, always with an eye out for a drummer who lived in the area. I saw Baptists/Nick a couple years back, and that was the first instance where I thought, “This is the guy,” but at the time, it didn’t seem realistic due to our geographical distance. I wasn’t really ready to pursue a new project yet, either. Then, as Nick said, I was recording with Old Man Gloom and I asked Kurt if he knew any good drummers in the NW and he suggested Nick. After having this idea brought up again, I knew it at least needed to be explored… and from there, we started putting the pieces together.
NYS: Based on the information that’s been released, Aaron and Nick constitute the core of the band. While Brian Cook performs on the album, it’s my understanding that he can’t commit to the band fully. To what extent has he been involved thus far, and to what degree will he continue to be involved?
Nick: Brian wrote and recorded bass on the record and will be involved whenever he’s able to be. He’s got his thing going with Russian Circles and we’re stoked to have him as much as is possible.
Aaron: We’re hoping that the sheer excitement we’ve all gotten out of doing this music together so far will be enough incentive for Brian to spend every waking moment of his life outside Russian Circles doing stuff with Sumac. It needs to happen – at this point I can’t imagine having anyone else fill his shoes after how great his work on the album turned out. That said, we do want to do this as much as we can so we’ll just have to clone Brian for any tours he’s not able to make….
NYS: It seems that you recorded The Deal before announcing the formation of the band. Would you say this was an intentional maneuver to an extent, or rather just the way things fell into place?
Nick: Sometimes it’s good to have your shit together a little bit before spilling the beans on a new project, and sometimes it’s cool to just wing it. This was a combination of both, I’d say. Aaron seized a great opportunity to record this album and set up everything to do with its release before we thought to promote it or anything like that.
Aaron: I just didn’t want to say much until we actually had something in hand – too many good ideas have been talked to death before actually coming to fruition. I also didn’t know how our initial experiment was going to turn out – I knew it had the potential to be good, based on the ideas and people on board, we just needed to really get it going to see if it felt right before publicly committing to it.
NYS: While Aaron’s somewhat known for his involvement in a number of projects, and Nick’s got several of his own, Aaron’s stated that the plan is for Sumac to be more of a full-time band. Is this still the plan? Is touring extensively a possibility?
Nick: Yeah, I mean as I’m writing this, we haven’t even had a jam as a three-piece yet! Touring sounds really fun and I look forward to playing this material live. I’m really stoked to elaborate on what we have going musically already and see where that takes us.
Aaron: Yeah, this is all still in the formative stages in terms of how we can operate. We intend to do as much as we can and work at it consistently enough to prevent it from being condemned to side project status. Neither Nick nor I have a heavy/rock band that plays in a full-time capacity, and functioning at that level of activity is something we’d both like to be able to do. I currently have no idea what the possibilities are, as it’s mostly dependent on other people wanting us to play with them, and that’s clearly not up to us. The more we can play together live, the more we can develop our chemistry and push our writing into different areas – the prospect of which I’m very excited and curious about. If we don’t have the opportunity to play out much, we’ll just keep writing and recording albums until we have no more to say with this collective voice.
[We have] a heavy emphasis on texture, gradual and subtle shifts on repeated themes, striking balance between interesting dynamic shifts and flowing musical constructions, and an unrepentant interest in mid-tempo heaviness.
– Aaron Turner
NYS: While you’re both undeniably associated with heavy music, Nick’s said that this is somewhat unlike past projects. In what ways would you say Sumac differs from other endeavours? What would you say you are exploring musically here that you haven’t touched on before?
Nick: Generally, the bands I’m in play fast songs that are a couple minutes long, tops. The scope of this project is a lot bigger and leans on the unconventional side of things more often than not. We got to explore some different textures and free-form ideas that were pretty fun.
Aaron: This is different for me most significantly because of the others involved. Their particular skills and creative perspectives are what compelled me to want to play music with them, and a big part of how I imagined the sound of the band coming together. The writing I’ve done for the band on the other hand is along the lines of the trajectory I’ve been on for quite some time – a heavy emphasis on texture, gradual and subtle shifts on repeated themes, striking balance between interesting dynamic shifts and flowing musical constructions, and an unrepentant interest in mid-tempo heaviness.
One area of this band that is somewhat new for me, and which I hope we can develop more, is the interjection of improvised sections within the context of the songs, live sets and albums. I want to create songs and well-defined musical structures that are fun and engaging to perform in their own right, coupled with surprising and intentional moves into unplanned/unknown territories that make the repeated performance of the material interesting and new, no matter how many times we do it. I love the idea of creating identifiable themes/songs and simultaneously having the option of taking those things apart, letting chance and collective intuition intervene in performance and recording.
NYS: Any significance to the name?
Nick: I think it’s a plant.
Aaron: Nick is correct. It is a plant! It was chosen partially for the way it sounds and the way the word looks – important for any self-respecting metal band. The plant itself has a variety of medicinal uses, the berries of some kinds of sumac, when ground, are used as a spice, and some types are poisonous. The multifaceted aspect of its nature is an interesting parallel for the intended functionality of the music – a source of healing, sustenance, and occasionally, destruction. The etymology of the word can also be traced back to meaning “red” – the colour of blood, analogous to life and passion. This is crucial to the intent with the band – embodying a passion for living, creating, for being consciously alive, and making the best possible use of the finite time we have in our bodies.
NYS: Is there a particular approach taken to writing the songs? Is this affected by the fact that you live in different cities (albeit ones that are relatively close)?
Nick: Aaron recorded some guitar demos and sent me those to get some ideas going before we started rehearsing for the recording. We spent six days constructing these songs leading up to the studio time. We would record our jams on our phones and mentally edit parts in our off time. I was staying with Aaron in Washington that whole time, so we could bounce ideas back and forth as we needed.
Aaron: I just started writing the kind of riffs I wanted to hear and to play, without thinking about what they were for, or judging them in any way – other than whether or not it felt good to play them. After starting with some initial ideas and seeing some defining shapes take form, I began actively communicating with Nick to see if this was territory that would be mutually interesting. He was into it, and after playing together for the first time it seemed like a good idea to keep at it. Our distance made it difficult to do in isolated chunks, so we decided to just take a week and a half to arrange all the parts I’d written over about a six- or seven-month period and lay down the basic tracks for the album all in one go. This was different from pretty much all of my other band experiences and seemed to come together with a surprising fluidity and cohesion. It still surprises me now when I’m listening back to the album, but then again, I had faith in the parts I’d written, and in Nick and Brian’s exceptionally creative powers!
NYS: You’re making your live debut playing with Deafheaven in Vancouver on December 4th. Any particular reason you chose this date, or was this simply something afforded by logistics?
Nick: The show was presented to us and the timing felt right, so we were able to make it happen – if all goes to plan. “Afforded by Logistics” should be the name of the album!
Aaron: We needed an outlet and were ready to take the chance as soon as one rolled around. Being asked to do this show seemed like a good place to start – it’s Nick’s hometown, not too far from me, and seems like an audience that would be at least potentially receptive to our racket – something heavy that isn’t easy to pigeonhole as one thing or another.
NYS: Any thoughts on the Vancouver music scene right now? Who would you like to see on a bill with Sumac?
Nick: There is a lot going on in Vancouver, and I haven’t seen or heard a fraction of the bands out there. Even if there are a few shows going on the same night, they can all be super rad and packed. Sumac would fit with a variety of bands. I’d have to go right to Haggatha and Waingro, off the top of my head, those guys are my favourites.
Aaron: I’m unfamiliar with the Vancouver scene – I know Nick and the Baptists guys, Mass Marriage and Gabriel Saloman. I would very much like to play with any of the above mentioned, especially Baptists – mostly to watch Nick suffer through two sets.